Tuning Up: Six Teachers Who Changed My Life
As I wracked my brain to think of something that wasn’t lame to say here this month, something drew me back to the guitar-playing days of my youth. I got to thinking about the first musicians I ever knew and how they affected me. As I thought about it more, I realized I owe six guys a debt of gratitude for aiding me on the path to the fortunate situation I find myself in today.
[NAME WITHHELD]. I can’t, in good conscience, name the first true guitarist I took lessons from. He was in the classical program at the local university, and he fit pretty much every negative stereotype you can imagine for someone of that persuasion: He never smiled, he always wore slacks and a tie with his white button-down shirt, and he loathed everything I loved about music. Looking back, I guess I can’t blame him for not being enthused about me—a 12-year-old kid clocking his year on acoustic guitar to meet mom’s required period for proving I was serious about the instrument so that she’d let me buy a solidbody. But the dude never even tried to convert me to what he dug about guitar. He was just clocking time, too. He didn’t give a crap one week when he tried to correct my plucking position and hurt the bandaged wound on my forearm, and he openly mocked me for wanting to play electric guitar. So why am I grateful? He gave me my first and perhaps most poignant lesson on how lame it is to be an uptight jackass about music and to be dismissive of others because of their tastes.
Jim Busby. Once mom realized classical dude was a jerk, she found the most happening guitar-lesson spot in good ol’ Provo, Utah—Herger Music. I started taking lessons with Jim Busby, who had a blueburst Yamaha double-cutaway and was refreshingly patient, positive, and nice. Jim made lessons fun— something to look forward to— even though I was still too much of a novice to make my new Strat play the stuff I wanted to play, and wouldn’t truly appreciate the twanging awesomeness of Bill Kirchen’s “Hot Rod Lincoln” for a few more years. He also gave my confidence a massive boost one day when he publicly praised my studiousness to one of his other pupils. Thank you, Jim!
Paul Swan. A year or so after switching to electric guitar, I enrolled in a high school that must’ve had the coolest band teacher in 1980s Utah. Paul Swan had a big mustache and looked and acted a lot like a down-to-earth Frank Zappa. He taught jazz band, but he convinced the principal of the rather conservative school to let him teach a class called “Commercial Music” every morning. Paul didn’t play guitar, but it didn’t matter—he was passionate about music and teaching clueless-but-eager kids. He taught our ragtag handful of wannabe rockers to really listen— he played layered recordings and made us call out the names of the instruments and explain what they were doing. He helped us form our first rock band and made us choose songs to learn and play at pep assemblies. He sat down at a synth and helped us compose our first song—which we later performed in front of a thousand kids at a school talent show (I even got up the guts to slide on my knees onstage during my weak-ass solo). Though my friends and I were devastated a year or two later when the uptight new principal cancelled the class, it still changed my life in a big way. Thank you, Paul.
Dave Hyer. I met Dave, a senior, in Commercial Music, and he was the only other kid I’d met who played guitar up to that point. He’d played for a while and was way better than I was, but he took me under his wing and even invited me over to jam and help me write my second song ever, despite the fact that I was a lowly and immature freshman. Though he was the guitar hero of Timpview High and my meager skills paled in comparison, he inspired me with his humility, friendship, and hard work. Thanks, Dave!
Eric Petersen. My second teacher at Herger Music was Eric Petersen. He played a mean classical guitar, but he could also wail on his Strat. He was laid-back and cool, and as he introduced me to the world of scales and I developed some dexterity, he never hesitated to teach me whatever I wanted to learn— without prejudice. Thanks, Eric.
Michael Dowdle. As I became more of a guitar freak over my teenage years, I came to idolize a local hero named Michael Dowdle. Besides being a clinician for DigiTech, a Mike Varney’s “Spotlight” subject, and the go-to session player for most TV and radio commercials and most albums being recorded in the entire state, Mike did sessions for every national TV network, cable channels, and feature films. He wrote the ABC Sports theme, CNBC’s Hardball theme, and recorded for The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Today Show, among many others. I pestered Mike for a year or so when I was 16 or 17, and eventually he gave in and took me on as his only student. I wanted to learn how to be a studio guy, because I figured that way I could eventually have a family but still have a steady job in music without having to be on the road (y’know, because becoming a rock god was so likely—pshaw!).
Mike taught me that persistence pays off, that diversity and discipline are great things, and that studio work would’ve been the death of me. Huh? Yeah. Style-wise, Mike and I are much different today—check out his über-polished, Eric Johnson-meets- Larry Carlton ripping on YouTube for yourself—but back then we weren’t. But I’m grateful he was frank with me about how tedious and job-like session work can often be. He let me tag along to sessions at the area’s biggest studios, and I realized my punk-tinged spirit would wither in that world. I still learned tons from him—and in a way he saved my soul. Thank you, Michael!
Here’s to these caring, talented, and influential people, and the countless others like them in all our lives. I wish you the best.